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Coach’s Corner: Whither Y-Cross, the destroyer of middles?

The devastating route has been largely absent from the arsenal this year. Is this the week it makes a return?

Washington State v Stanford Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

River Cracraft owned the middle of the football field. The former Cougar receiver was brilliant in exploiting the space behind the linebackers and between the safeties. The threat of him gashing the defense between the hashes opened up the outside for receivers like Isiah Myers, Vince Mayle, and Gabe Marks. And River’s signature play was Y-Cross. Both Connor Halliday and Luke Falk had a security blanket in Cracraft patrolling the middle of the field, and they—particularly Falk—would abuse defenses by finding Cracraft in seemingly impossible windows.

Just ask Rutgers...

Or Arizona...

Or Cal...

But Y-Cross seems to have disappeared from Luke Falk’s weaponry. The intermediate/deep middle has seen significantly fewer targets this year than in years past. That is largely due to the absence of Cracraft, the injury to Robert Lewis, and the insertion of younger, less experienced receivers into the lineup.

That’s not to say that Leach and/or Falk aren’t calling Y-Cross on the field. The play is still being run, and probably with only slightly less regularity than it was during the previous four seasons. The difference is that the ball isn’t ending up in the hands of the Y on the cross. More often than, it’s going to Tavares Martin Jr. on the outside vertical at the X. Which, clearly, isn’t a bad thing. But the Air Raid thrives on balance among targets and on attacking each and every part of the field. The deep middle— whether by defensive design or a lack of comfort with the inside receivers—is not being visited nearly often enough by Cougar receivers.

Here’s Martin ripping off a big chunk early against Nevada. Notice Calvin coming across the middle on the Cross.

The coaching point on Y-Cross is to run under the near linebacker and behind the Mike. Calvin does that here, but a more experienced Y (read: Cracraft) might duck underneath the Mike instead. As Morrow’s swing route pulls the eyes and feet of the linebacker at the bottom of the screen, the space between that LB and the Mike opens up. Throttle down in the soft spot and probably pick up a first down. Of course, no complaints about the outcome of the play, but little things are going to be the difference against a more talented USC team.

But here’s why that middle might become even more important. Take a look at this screenshot from last week’s USC/Cal matchup. Cal isn’t enlightened anymore, so this isn’t Y-Cross exactly, but it’s a slot receiver attacking deep middle.

Ross Bowers, the Cal QB, misreads this play. It works out for him, but only after Kanawai Noa makes a difficult catch. BUT LOOK AT ALL THAT GREEN IN THE MIDDLE. Nary a USC defender in sight, and those that are on screen have their backs to... well, basically everything. Unidentified Cal receiver at the bottom of the screen could have sat down, made a sandwich, ate said sandwich, drunk his beverage of choice, stretched, stood up, then caught the ball and probably get a good chunk of yardage in the meantime. But hey, again, can’t argue with the results. Here’s the play in its entirety:

It’s important to remember that the USC defensive coordinator is Clancy Pendergast. He’s back with the Trojans after a couple years up the road with the San Francisco 49ers. So we actually have some tape on how Pendergast prefers to defend the Air Raid, and it’s likely to look fairly similar. The last time Pendergast went up against Leach’s offense, in the Coliseum in 2013, the Trojans yielded only a field goal. Coaches are creatures of habit, especially when it ain’t broke. But much like the clip above against Cal, there tended to be acreage open in the middle of the field.

Exhibit A (apologies for the quality, this is from the Dark Ages of 360p):

USC walked up their linebackers and brought heat, but it’s five-on-five in the trenches. Other than that, there’s one defender in the middle of the field. It’s hard to tell, but it looks like USC is playing C.1 Robber here. If the receivers can get free, there is a lot of room to operate in the middle. Halliday ends up checking to a run here—a pretty good call, considering the lack of second level defenders— and USC jumps offsides.

Expect a lot of that sort of look—three down linemen, two linebackers walked up showing blitz and coming more often than not, with a man-free look, possibly a robber look as well. And if that’s the case, the Y-Cross may just make a return, marking a big night for the insides.

Cleaning up a little bit from last week, Irvinecoug mentioned a play where Falk rolled out of the pocket, and the question was whether this was by design. Here’s the play in question, keep your eyes at the top of the screen where Oregon State brings some extra defenders up to the line.

The more I look at this, the more it looks like Falk had checked to outside zone, but sees the pressure coming and just decides to pull it and throw to the original play. The roll out was definitely not by design, but out of necessity. Dillard has one on him head-up, and he’s going to zone block away from pressure, so Falk is facing two unblocked defenders coming for his soul. The routes aren’t quick enough that he can sit in the pocket, so he just improvises and takes off to his right, using the design of the zone scheme somewhat to his advantage.